I keep a prayer list on my desk, a handwritten list of people for whom I pray daily. My list includes quite a few names of individuals who have chosen to wander down prodigal paths — and the names of their parents who live daily with the fear of where these paths may ultimately lead their kids.
Having lived through some very dark years when one of my own kids became disoriented, I take seriously the responsibility to pray. I also offer hurting parents practical wisdom gleaned through those years of wondering if our own story would have a happy ending.
I thank God often that our story, that very painful and frightening part of our story, had a happy ending. We are now past those dark years of parenting a prodigal.
Looking back, those long years now look like a short chapter in our continuing story — a beautiful story. And, although I wish that we had not experienced what we did, I am grateful for what we learned.
As a dad, the turning point for me came when I finally stopped struggling. I reached a point of exhaustion. I was tired of fighting, arguing, raising my voice, trying to talk sense, and all of the other things we tend to do as parents when we see our kids making bad choices.
I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. I closed the door to my office, sat alone, and wept. I cried out to God from the depths of my frustration and despair and He answered me. “Your son is battling fierce and terrible giants. He cannot fight this battle alone. Stop fighting him and start fighting for him. Become Jonathan’s champion.”
That was the beginning of the end of that awful chapter. I talked with Cheryl, my wife, and told her about what the Lord had clearly spoken to me. I told her that I was going to take the battle to the enemy by praying and fasting.
I fasted a total of forty-two days for my son. Cheryl and I understood that while the answer might not come during that period of prayer and fasting, we believed that those days would set the answer in motion.
We braced ourselves for a full head-on collision with the enemy who was determined to destroy our son.
I did not sleep much during those days. Our battle was not against flesh and blood but against an enemy bent on the complete destruction of our child. I talked to God constantly — and I also talked to the enemy. I reminded the Devil several times a day that he would not have our son. If it meant I had to pray and fast for a hundred days I would do it. We would not give up our son.
Over a period of time our son made his way back. Today, he is married to an amazing young lady. So many times I feared I would officiate his funeral. Instead I officiated their wedding. Earlier this year God blessed them with a beautiful daughter and us with our first granddaughter. Looking at my son and his family fills me with deep gratitude to God for this new chapter of Jonathan’s life — a chapter that might never have happened.
Through those years, God taught me these 10 lessons about parenting a prodigal.
10. Choices Matter
Erwin McManus, one of my favorite pastors and writers, observed, “The most spiritual activity you will engage in today is making choices. Our choices either move us toward God and all the pleasure that comes in Him or steer us away from Him to a life of shame and fear.” My son clearly made some bad choices, but so did I. Many of my choices caused me to miss the signals that my son was in danger. I try to be more attentive now.
9. Turn Fear Into Motivation
The realization that our story might not have a happy ending was the most frightening thing we dealt with during the dark years. We feared the knock at the door at 3:00 AM to inform us that something awful had happened to our son. This fear motivated us to pray and to fight hard for our son.
8. Fight Strategically
I learned that it was much easier to fight with my son and turn him into the enemy than it was to fight the enemy who was trying to destroy my son. My son was not the enemy. The enemy is the enemy. I learned to fight the right enemy and to do so strategically.
7. Watch and Pray Expectantly
Praying without ceasing took on a whole new meaning during those painful years. Fasting helped me to intensify my prayers with laser precision. I was inspired by the story of the lame beggar in the book of Acts. He looked at Peter and John “expecting to receive something from them” (Acts 3:5) — and received more than he expected. I prayed with the same expectant attitude. Like David, I prayed and eagerly watched for the answer to my prayers (Psalm 3:5).
6. Choose Your Battles
I learned to resist the urge to gripe and complain about every little thing that bothered me lest these skirmishes distract me from the greater war. Don’t complicate things by fighting about things that are symptoms but not causes of the greater concerns.
5. Love Unconditionally
In most cases, a prodigal child will know that you do not approve of their choices and behavior. However, never let them doubt your love. Keep your heart open and find ways to affirm your love.
4. Let Them Return at Their Own Pace
Be patient. The first step back is taken only after hitting bottom. Be grateful for every step in the right direction. Celebrate small steps. And, don’t despair when they backslide or lose traction on the way back.
3. Find Ways to Stay Motivated
I created a playlist of songs (on my iPod in those years) that encouraged me to pray for my son and that gave me hope. I listened to those songs every day. In many ways, the lyrics of those songs expressed my hopes.
2. Run In Their Direction
Luke 15:20 says it all about the prodigal son and his dad — “And he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him.”
1. Continue To Be Available
Our choices often have lingering consequences that may take years to resolve. Be available to help your child put the pieces back together. Continue to help them move toward healing and wholeness.